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Solyndra: House committee grills officials over failed solar firm

Soly
A congressional investigative committee on Wednesday grilled officials from two agencies that backed a $535-million loan package to failed Northern California solar panel manufacturer Solyndra.

Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations said they want to know why the Energy Department approved the Solyndra loans in 2009 and then restructured the loan this February despite evidence that the company was struggling financially.

Solyndra, which was hailed by President Obama in 2010 as an innovative company that would use stimulus money to create jobs and lead the economic recovery, laid off most of its 1,100 workers Aug. 31 and announced it would cease operations. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Sept. 6.

Two days later, agents with the FBI and Energy Department's inspector general served a search warrant at Solyndra's Fremont headquarters. The company's failure and the criminal investigation have raised questions about the administration's decision to pour billions of dollars into clean-energy programs.

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), the subcommittee's chairman, pressed Energy Department loans director Jonathan Silver on Wednesday to explain how the agency could approve more than half a billion dollars in loans despite questions about the company's financial health.

He also cited internal emails that he said show White House officials appeared to be pressuring Energy Department and the Office of Management and Budget to speed up approval of the Solyndra loans.

"You should have protected the taxpayers and made some forceful actions here," Stearns said.

Silver noted that Solyndra had first applied for the loan in 2006 under President Bush's watch. He said the loan was tentatively approved in March 2009 "on the exact schedule that had been developed by the Bush administration."

He said federal loans are vital to allowing U.S. companies to compete in the alternative energy field. Financing innovative technology is a risky business, but a risk worth taking, Silver said.

"The rest of the world takes the industry enormously seriously," Silver said. "It's a multitrillion-dollar market that will create tens of thousands of jobs.

"We invented this technology and we should produce it here. ... This is a battle we must fight and win."

Solyndra officials cited foreign competition, particularly from China, as a significant cause of the company's failure. Chinese companies, which receive billions of dollars in government funding, are producing similar products at a fraction of the cost that Solyndra could, the company said.

Two Solyndra executives, including chief Brian Harrison, declined to attend the hearing, saying they were focused on dealing with a potential sale of the company and time commitments related to the bankruptcy and criminal investigation.  

The hearing, which lasted more than four hours, focused significant attention on emails that the White House pressured the Energy Department and budget officials to approve the Solyndra loans quickly.

Silver and Jeffrey Zients, deputy director of Office of Management and Budget, said the loans were approved on merit and not influence from the White House. They said the Solyndra failure should not discourage continued U.S. investment in alternative energy.

"It's a disappointing outcome but it comes with the terrain of backing innovative technology," Zients told the committee.

Silver told the committee that he was not aware of what the FBI is investigating. He told the committee that he does not believe Solyndra misled the government in order to receive the loans.

RELATED:

FBI raids solar firm Solyndra after bankruptcy filing

Democrats say Solyndra scandal touches Republicans, too

Energy Department expects solar energy project to create 900 jobs

-- Stuart Pfeifer

Photo: Jonathan Silver, executive director of the Department of Energy Loans Programs Office, left, and Jeffrey Zients, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, swear in to testify during a House hearing Wednesday. Credit: Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg News

 
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